A top administrator in Connecticut’s merged public college system received a nearly $49,000 pay increase last week — a move that members of its governing board could not explain Monday, even as most state employees remain under a wage freeze.

And while top administrators for the Board of Regents for Higher Education failed to return multiple phone calls from The Mirror, a brief emailed statement indicated that the 27 percent bump given to Executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti was part of a larger reorganization effort.

The increase, which The Mirror confirmed with State Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo, also sparked an angry response Monday from leaders of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, who called it inappropriate given the state’s budget woes and recent cutbacks in student aid.

Meotti, whose annual pay was $183,339, would earn $232,244 over the coming 12 months based on the new rate implemented Friday, according to the comptroller’s office.

It was unclear Friday or Monday how the increase for Meotti was approved, or how many others received compensation hikes.

Lewis Robinson Jr., chairman of the Board of Regents, said during a brief interview Monday that he didn’t know how pay raises in the central office are approved and referred all questions either to Meotti or to Robert A. Kennedy, president of the Board of Regents’ system.

Neither Meotti nor Kennedy returned calls left Friday and Monday. Several others on the 15-member board referred all questions to Robinson or Kennedy.

Only after The Mirror appealed to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office Monday for assistance did the Board of Regents’ system office issue a statement by email.

The system’s director of human resources, Steve Weinberger, did not identify how many employees received increases during a recent reorganization, but wrote that “in each instance, the salary increases reflect either new responsibilities or an adjustment that became obvious given the restructuring that occurred at the board. … Over time, we came to understand that, for internal and external equity considerations, adjustments were merited.”

The General Assembly and Malloy created the Board of Regents system last year by merging the four Connecticut State Universities, the 12 community colleges and Charter Oak State College with the goal of achieving efficiencies and cutting administrative costs.

Meotti, a former commissioner of the Department of Higher Education for three years and previously a state senator, emerged as the Malloy administration’s point man on the higher education consolidation shortly after it announced the plan.

Three weeks ago — before Meotti’s pay increase went into effect — the Board of Regents sent out a news release highlighting 47 new faculty positions it was able to fund through the $5.5 million saved through reorganization efforts that included eliminating 24 administrative posts.

Weinberger also wrote in his statement Monday, “These increases have brought these position salaries on par with similar positions in other university systems. These adjustments do not impact the BOR’s accomplishment of operating with a central office staff smaller than its legacy organizations at salary levels lower than previous incumbents.”

The Board of Regent’s current budget appropriates $29.6 million for its system offices, or 3 percent of the budget.

Strong reactions

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwomen of the Higher Education Committee, said Monday that, given the sacrifices students, state employees and others have made in recent years, none of the savings from the Board of Regents’ consolidation effort should have been redirected into raises.

“The whole point of the reorganization was for the dollars to go down to the classroom,” Bye said. “There’s no justifying those increases in these fiscal times. I’m outraged.”

“We cut financial aid this year,” Willis said. “The students took a direct hit. This is the wrong time for this.”

The Board of Regents increased tuition by 3.1 percent this year at the community colleges and by 3.8 percent at the four-year state colleges. That tuition increase is expected to bring in an additional $12.8 million in revenue this year.

State government finished the 2011-12 fiscal year with a $143 million general fund deficit, and Lembo certified a $27 million shortfall on Oct. 1 for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

And most state employees are in the second year of a two-year wage freeze ordered by the concessions agreement negotiated by Malloy and state worker union leaders. All but two bargaining units accepted the freeze, thereby exempting them from layoffs through the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Malloy urged all agency heads, including Kennedy, during a Sept. 25 meeting to look for opportunities to trim costs because he anticipates another difficult fiscal year.

“Unfortunately, the economy has not grown as much as we would like it to,” the governor said at that time. “… We’re making government more efficient, but we’ve got to keep going. We still have a long, long, long way to go.”

When asked Monday whether Meotti’s raise was contrary to the governor’s instructions, Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba said, “The Board of Regents is an independent body, and as such it was their decision to handle the compensation of management in this manner.”

The merged college system also has been in the media spotlight recently following news that the 12 community college presidents are being offered an “expedite[d]” dismissal from their post. Policy requires that college presidents who have been with the system for more than three years be given a 12-month notice, with pay, if they will no longer run the school. Policy also allows for an “accelerated” payment of that 12-months pay, according to a release from the Connecticut State Universities and Colleges Friday night.

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